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Focus on Food

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

There's a long list of departments within the Massachusetts state government that deal with food in one way or another—those concerned with agricultural policy, environmental protection, business and commerce, public health, social service programs for the needy.

Historically, getting all those departments on the same page has not been an easy task.

But it could get a lot easier with the recent passage of a bill to create a Massachusetts Food Policy Council. The bill, which was sponsored by state Rep. Steven Kulik—a Franklin County Democrat and champion of local agriculture—was passed in the waning days of the recent legislative session. At deadline, advocates were expecting Gov. Deval Patrick to sign it into law.

According to the bill, "The purpose of the council shall be to develop a comprehensive food policy for the commonwealth." That could include new regulations or legislation to strengthen the market for local food, promote sustainability, improve public health through an emphasis on fresh, local food, and improve "food security" for low-income residents.

"By building ties between agencies and stakeholders, the Council will strengthen relationships between Massachusetts farmers and communities to address inadequate access to healthy, affordable food," Kulik said in a statement announcing the bill's passage.

Phil Korman, executive director of South Deerfield's Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA, applauded the bill's passage.

"It's exciting because it has people thinking about the food system in Massachusetts," and brings together a range of government and non-government groups with overlapping interests, he said. That level of focus is especially important, Korman said, because Massachusetts—despite the strong farming community in this part of the state—does not typically think of itself as an agricultural state.

Korman would like to see the new state council set a goal for how much of residents' diets should be made up of local food. Right now, he estimates, it's about five to 10 percent on average. "It would be great to say, 'Let's see if we can double that in 10 years,'" he said. Korman would also like to see an emphasis on how fresh, local food can help combat public health problems like obesity and diabetes.

The Food Policy Council will be made up of 23 members, including representatives from the Departments of Agricultural Resources, Public Health, Education, Environmental Protection and Transitional Assistance and Business Development, plus the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, and Mass. Development. It will also include farmers, as well as representatives from the Cooperative Extensive Service at UMass Amherst, the fishing industry, farmland protection organizations, farmers' markets, the retail food industry, food banks and "buy local" projects. Several legislators will also sit on the Council.

Fifteen other states already have food policy councils. There are also dozens of local councils in municipalities and counties across the country, according to Drake University Law School's Agricultural Law Center. Three local councils exist in Massachusetts, including Springfield Partners for Community Action's Food Policy Council and Holyoke's Food and Fitness Policy Council, based at Nuestras Raices.

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